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Twenty years ago English football suffered arguably its worst disaster when 96 Liverpool fans died in or as a result of a stampede at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield. The tragedy, seen in hindsight, stemmed from the public perception of football - a sport by, for and of hooligans - and the consequent reaction: hostile stadiums, hostile policing. From the debris of that disaster has arisen the most valuable, global club-based sports tournament, which has become a benchmark for the rest of the competition.
That rebirth was not accidental. Hillsborough forced the British authorities - notably the Thatcher government - to look at football in new light. The prescription came from the Taylor Commission investigating the Hillsborough tragedy: the way ahead for football, was as a family game, a more wholesome form of entertainment suitable for a weekend afternoon. That required a transformation of the football grounds from medieval human cages to modern, all-seater theatres. That in turn required money. The clubs certainly didn't have that kind of money, nor did the Football Trust, and so, in 1993, was born the Premier League and the deal with Murdoch's Sky Television that brought in the money. That brought in the stars, and as the Premiership imported talent it exported itself - first to Europe and the Americas, then to Asia and Africa.
Around the same time, the NBA was taking its first steps on the road from being seen as a domestic tournament in a quintessentially American sport to becoming a global behemoth, breaking markets that are still largely impervious to western concepts and products.
What's the connection between all this and cricket? Well, cricket today is also at a tipping point of sorts - it has a brand-new format that is not merely bringing in the big bucks but bankrolling the entire game; yet it has split the sport down the middle, becoming at once the game's salvation and the destroyer of cricket as we know it. Twenty20 is cricket's big game-changer; it has, inside two years, spawned not one but two billion-dollar tournaments, introduced a radically different notion of the teams playing those tournaments and raised the prospect of freelancer cricketers. All this in two years flat.
Yet it is clear cricket has grown all it can within the traditional parameters; its economy is maxed out and overly dependent on one country. Growth will not come from within. One of today's more thinking cricketers recently said the game needs to broadbase its finances with more foreign investment. He was speaking in the context of the IPL, but taking his theory and tweaking it leads me to this proposition: To grow, cricket needs to move into new frontiers, break new ground. It will achieve the potential offered to it by Twenty20 only if it sheds its image of being a colonial, antiquated British game played in whites, over five days with halts for lunch, tea and drinks. We know it has changed but there's a whole world out there - literally so - that does not. In short, cricket needs to go truly global.
And Twenty20 can do the trick. It is the simplest form of the game, it isn't weighed down by tradition or other archaic baggage, it is young enough to be further customised, and - crucially - it is the format of choice for younger fans even in established cricket markets. Why was it so easy for football and basketball to go global? Marketing played a huge role, of course, but two key factors are inherent in the sports themselves. One, their essential simplicity, in terms of rules and the equipment needed; and two, the high energy levels they both demand, which make them far more attractive to youth than relatively sedate cricket. Until Twenty20 came in.
|If Twenty20 is the agent of change, the primary carrier will be the South Asian diaspora; it is now a truly global presence that has either the numbers or the wealth, or both, to make Twenty20 viable in some form - from TV rights or from bums on seats - almost anywhere in the world|
If Twenty20 is the agent of change, the primary carrier will be the South Asian diaspora; it is now a truly global presence that has either the numbers or the wealth, or both, to make Twenty20 viable in some form - from TV rights or from bums on seats - almost anywhere in the world. Whether it's a group of locals and expats playing in a purely local tournament, or a roadshow featuring stars from the IPL and Champions League, who's to say it's not viable? An IPL XI (or two) could feature players from every single Test-playing nation, enough to draw in crowds wherever they play.
Ultimately, cricket's road to going global could lie with the Olympic Games. The sport was last played in the Olympics in 1900 but talk of re-entry started soon after the inaugural IPL season. "This is a win-win for the Olympic movement and the ICC and its members," Adam Gilchrist said at the time. "Firstly, the Olympic movement's only remaining dead pocket in the world happens to coincide with cricket's strongest - the sub continent. This region, which includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, represents just over one fifth of the world's population." Joining the Olympic movement will open up the sport to accountability, checks, balances and some sort of regulation but that would be a small price to pay for winning over the world.
Going global's the goal
The Premier League and the NBA are probably the world's two most global leagues. Football has always been the global game but the Premiership took it to the level of an interactive experience. Fans no longer had to be content merely watching their idols on television: they could watch the matches wearing their official team shirts, sitting in an appropriately themed bar or pub, paying for their entertainment with credit cards branded in their club's name. Smart marketing allows the TV viewer almost anywhere in Asia to watch more Premiership football - six-odd games every weekend, plus the cup tournaments - for next to nothing, compared to the fan in England, who pays an arm and a leg for his Sky subscription.
While the EPL's cosmopolitan nature is well documented - recently Arsenal and Portsmouth played each other in a game that featured not a single Englishman in the starting line-up - the NBA's is less so. But this is a league that went global two decades ago, riding on the phenomenon that was Michael Jordan and his starring role in two Dream Teams, the original US 1992 Olympics squad and the Chicago Bulls. It did so through a mix of luck, timing and marketing genius. In 1989, FIBA, the sport's global governing body, allowed professionals into the Olympics. That coincided with the coming together of the Dream Team, which exploded from the Barcelona Games into the consciousness of a rapidly shrinking, homogenised world, via satellite television and Nike's marketing savvy. The NBA jumped on that, exporting the phenomenon across the globe; 74 countries watched the 1990-91 NBA season but by the end of that decade the league was being shown in more than 200 countries. They'd already begun hiring talent from those countries - Argentina, Greece, Italy, central Europe - and ensured NBA loyalty in all those regions.
Finally, they went for the big one: China. The NBA's conquest of the Bamboo Curtain is one of the greatest marketing feats but it didn't happen overnight; it came about the hard way, through stealth, planning and a lot of foresight. In the 1980s the NBA looked at building interest and loyalty and offered television rights for free (right up until 1998); today, 51 broadcasters in China show NBA games. The league's relationship with China goes back several decades but the game-changer came when Yao Ming joined the NBA in 2002. Over the years the NBA ramped up its presence in China, opening local offices and retail stores, launching a Chinese-language version of its official website and, two years ago, setting up NBA China with an eye on setting up an NBA-affiliated league. Last year it even launched the reality TV show Mengniu NBA Basketball Disciple, an American show customised for China. The net result? The last NBA season was watched on TV by 1.6 billion people; the league's Chinese portal had 22 million monthly unique visitors and sites offering live streaming boasted up to half a million users for each game - and double that if Yao Ming was playing.
Those are numbers even the IPL and the Champions League can only dream about.
There is, however, an increasing sense that both sports have lost their soul for several handfuls of silver. There is no denying that football the world over has benefited from heavy financial investment - in England, it means a more scientific approach to the game, better diets, tactical flexibility and of course an attractability to the game's best players. Yet it has come at a high price - some would say too high. David Conn's The Beautiful Game? Searching for the soul of football is an apposite title for a book that looks at the effect of big money on the minnows - an increasing number of whom are going bankrupt and being forced into administration by simply having lived beyond their means. Higher up the food chain, the effect of big money is equally invidious. Manchester United, the biggest fish of them all, may have a committed global fan base but closer home is seen as the epitome of selling out. Its stadium is mockingly called Sold Trafford, its own supporters call the hugely successful in-house TV channel "Pravda" for the one-eyed view it offers of the club, and the trend towards an upmarket, corporate fan base led to the venerated former club captain Roy Keane calling them the "prawn sandwich" brigade.
Manchester United's real problem - one shared by the other big clubs in England and across Europe - is that success has put them on a treadmill that demands increasing success, with anything less than that adding several millions pounds to the wrong side of the balance sheet. Failure to qualify for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League this current season will deprive Liverpool of around US$15-20 million, while failure to qualify for next season's tournament - which is a reality if it doesn't finish among the top four in the Premier League this year - could cost them around $40-45 million.
Across the pond, the higher stakes don't reduce the problems. Harvey Araton's Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home tells of an NBA riven by the disconnect between players (hugely rich blacks) and spectators (hugely rich whites) and the problems stemming from that racial divide. Other observers talk of a boring sameness to every NBA season, where the battles are largely between a couple of teams - the Lakers, the Celtics, the Cavaliers - and the focus on a few overhyped stars at the cost of better, though lesser known, players.
Last February, ESPN's Bill Simmons painted an apocalyptic picture of the NBA - he called it the "No Benjamins Association" (a Benjamin being slang for a $100 bill). "For once, the league's problems have nothing to do with talent, drugs, racial issues or how the sport is being played," Simmons wrote. "With the country embroiled in its worst economic crisis in 80 years, the NBA is quietly bracing for its own little D-Day… only outsiders don't fully realise or care." It's the familiar story of overdrawn accounts and overpitched expectations, leading to empty seats, darkened corporate suites (even those who've bought suites find it cheaper to keep them empty than spend more on food and booze) and the fear of a lockout in 2011. What will keep the NBA alive is that very same lockout, which could change the way the game is administered, and the $4.7 billion TV deal it has signed through 2015-16.
A question of professionalism
Billion-dollar TV deals are meat and drink to the suits who run cricket - really run cricket. The problem is not money per se but its distribution. The excesses of the NBA haven't yet hit cricket, mainly because most national boards still don't see the kind of money an average NBA franchise deals in, but the financial disparities of football are in stark evidence - the likes of New Zealand and Bangladesh are barely surviving.
|Cricket's growth path is fairly clear; there are new worlds to conquer, new markets to tap, new fans to convert. It can go it alone, as it has all these years, or it can piggyback on more established means, such as the Olympic movement|
The problem for cricket, especially the new leagues, is of credibility and professionalism in administration. Ask any sports journalist whose beat includes the IPL and the Champions League, where rules and regulations are at best nebulous. The running joke is that everything is decided on Lalit Modi's BlackBerry (well, it would be a joke if the stakes weren't so high).
It's not just Modi and the IPL that appear averse to regulation. It is the Indian cricket board, the game's de facto custodians, whose typical response to any crisis - a match referee's verdict, an inconvenient anti-doping policy, the establishing of another Twenty20 league - is to raise the stakes to a level out of reach for the other parties and then begin negotiations. The men who run cricket may inspire some confidence in the markets but they inspire none among those who love the sport and view it seriously.
A sport with increasingly high stakes is more vulnerable to various forms of cheating, making close regulation even more necessary. Doping is one high-risk area, benefiting the user in two ways: it builds up muscle strength, which is more important than before in the game, reduces the effect of injury and allows a player to play more matches. Football and basketball have been reasonably free of doping but not so baseball, athletics and more power-based sports. That's why it is imperative cricket signs on to the WADA code, instead of seeing it as an infringement of the right to privacy.
The other, far more serious, form of cheating is match-fixing. Cricket has been there, done that, and you'd have thought it would automatically firewall its most lucrative format from the threat. Shamefully, that was not the case. The ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit was not handed charge of the first two seasons of the IPL; it was asked to "guide" the IPL's in-house team for the first season, and for the second, the BCCI sat on an ICC offer to provide full anti-corruption cover, mainly because the fee was too high. This despite specific warnings from top-level ICC officials about the risk of corruption in Twenty20 and the IPL in particular.
For all the criticism about how the English Premier League has become soulless and lost touch with the ordinary fan, it has functioned with transparency and efficiency, and its credibility is bolstered by the fact that it is strictly regulated - by the government, by the European Union, by UEFA, by FIFA. These regulators will decide whether Person X is fit (in the broadest sense of the word) to buy a club, whether Player Y, however junior, can break his contract with Club Z, however powerful. The EPL has grown through these checks and balances, which ensure that rules are framed and followed to cover the interests of all stakeholders.
Cricket's growth path is fairly clear; there are new worlds to conquer, new markets to tap, new fans to convert. It can go it alone, as it has all these years, or it can piggyback on more established means, such as the Olympic movement. Its revenues in the short term are assured: the billion-dollar TV deals run through the middle of this decade. The way ahead is Twenty20 but to win this game cricket needs to play a classical Test innings.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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